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Talk And Action

Nepali MBA student Ajaya Shestha quit a cushy corporate job to help impoverished child laborers in Mumbai 

By  Kirti Dhingra

Sun Jul 5 2009

When Ajaya Shrestha stumbled on a film about Mumbai sex workers in the HBO employees’ lounge, it marked the start of a journey from New York City IT manager to the slums of Mumbai.

The documentary, The Selling of Innocents, highlighted the plight of Nepali women brought to India and sold into brothels. It struck a chord with Shrestha, 32, who is originally from Nepal. A visit to Mumbai soon after, where he witnessed the “stark poverty” in the city, forced him to re-evaluate his priorities.

That was seven years ago. Straight out of Middlebury College, Vermont, Shrestha, who is due to complete an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management in 2010, spent four years in New York. He worked on strategy for HBO internet start-up Volume Media, and for Fortune 1,000 IT supplier Techforce Onsite. “As a person fresh out of college, New York was an exciting place to be”, he says. “I worked in two start-up companies hungry for creativity and hard work. I was pulling 70 to 80 hours a week and at a very young age, got exposed to starting up a $60m venture financed by HBO”.
The diversity of his workplace “was the icing on the cake”, according to Shrestha. However mixing with “left-wing intellectuals” outside of work, among other things, eventually pushed him to Mumbai in 2005 to work with Prathan, the largest non-profit organization within the primary education sector in India.
He found poverty in the city to be a complex phenomenon. Dharavi, the setting for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, is both Asia’s largest slum but also “the hub of Mumbai’s shadow economy”.
Shrestha first led a rescue plan to the rehabilitate over 20,000 children who were working in factories. He later worked on financial plans for a large-scale turnaround of failing public schools.     
The biggest challenge Shrestha has faced has been “identifying, measuring and evaluating deliverables” in the non-profit sector. It’s difficult to measure results when, for instance, the goal of an organization is to build awareness of HIV and AIDS. Surveys before and after a campaign can’t always isolate the impact of a particular measure.
“A big challenge for managers is to create measurable targets… and evaluate the resources expended in achieving those targets”, he says. Even when targets are met, however, there’s no guarantee that the desired social change will occur as there are inevitably “many drivers to that change”.
Another challenge is the time-frame over which social change is measured: “Social change takes time”, Shrestha adds. “What one does today can have an impact ten years later”.
Shrestha now wants to work in a corporate for a few years and then return to India’s non-profit sector with fresh skills.
For business graduates who want to follow the same path, Shrestha points out that there are two types of non-profits in India: those trying to reach large numbers of people, and those dealing with smaller numbers that adopt a more resource-intensive, holistic approach: “It might be a good idea to know what you’re interested in before taking a plunge”, he says.
Non-Indians who want to work in non-profits in India will find the sector a welcoming community: “Everyone treats everyone as a family member”. There are local ways of doing things that must be learned, but Shrestha says there are “scores of non-Indians who work there and seem to be doing well”.